When arriving in Marseille after an extended stay in Paris, the immediate danger is that you will be blinded by its obvious virtues. Yes, the sun shines warmer here than in the dour north. Yes, the streets erupt with a raucous disorder that proudly marks this city as part of the Mediterranean world. Yes, the abundant communities of Algerians, Moroccans and Tunisians gift Marseille with a flavour of the Magreb. And, yes, there are beaches here, real beaches, not the piles of fetid sand that are dumped along the Seine each summer for the laughable Paris Plages festival.
But this is guidebook rote. To truly understand Marseille’s glory, you must scratch through this veneer, you must persevere and listen to that niggle in your soul that says, Wait, look again; something special is going on here.
It took me a fair bit of time to even notice that niggle. I had spent three fairytale years in Paris, living among aspiring bohemians in bookstores and art squats, getting swept along by the tides of cheap red wine and pretty young au pairs, gorging myself upon Hemingway’s famous feast. Hell, I was so enamoured of Paris I even wrote a misty-eyed memoir about my time there.
When I eventually left the French capital to come to Marseille – I got on a train and followed a girlfriend south in 2003 – I initially lost myself among the city’s happy clichés. I took daily swims off the rocks at Malmousque, I learned to enjoy siestas in the afternoon, I discovered the potent doses of Pastis that were served each evening for apéro, the whole while chirping obsessively about the more civilized pace of Provençal life.
Slowly, however, I detected a more subtle, a more profound difference. It was a group of young boys that tipped me off. One morning, while walking to the bakery, they began taunting me, ‘Harry Potter, Harry Potter.’ That’s when I realized there just weren’t that many people who looked like me in Marseille: fair-haired, pale-skinned, obviously Anglo-Saxon in origin. While Paris is bombarded by North American and British tourists, and its streets are thick with exchange students and international employees of institutions such as UNESCO, Marseille remains largely untouched by these hordes of Western outsiders.
There are various explanations for this. It is partly due to the lack of any famous tourist sites; Victor Hugo once quipped that Marseille is a city without monuments and to this day there are no world class museums or iconic towers here.
Another reason is the city’s financial decline. In the 19th century, Marseille was the fourth most important seaport in the world (behind London, New York, and Liverpool), and Alexandre Dumas (père) insisted its main street, La Canebière, was so luxurious it was the envy of Europe; but by the end of the 20th century, the sea traffic had dwindled and the major port operations had moved outside of Marseille. This fading prosperity meant there wasn’t the economic infrastructure to attract fresh investment or a large enough moneyed class to support the critical mass of luxury boutiques and haute-cuisine restaurants that attract a certain pedigree of visitors. Indeed, it was only 2008 that a Marseille restaurant, Gérald Passédat’s Le Petit Nice, earned a third Michelin star.
And, of course, people also kept away because of the small matter of primal fear. Simply put, Marseille has a bad reputation. Some of it is well deserved: in the 1960s, Marseille was the heart of the world’s heroin processing industry and at one point the U.S. Bureau of Narcotics estimated that the city provided upwards of 90 per cent of America’s heroin supply. Needless to say, there was the inevitable gangland violence and civic corruption that accompanies such illicit trade. Still, over the years these criminal problems have been relentlessly exaggerated, either for cinematic impact (see The French Connection with Gene Hackman) or political gain (see the demagogic Jean-Marie Le Pen and his frequent comments about Marseille being an ‘occupied city’, full of ‘enemies’ from North Africa).
Whatever the root cause, the difference in the flow of visitors is dramatic. Consider but one small statistic: Paris registered more than 35 million nights of hotel occupancy in 2008. Marseille? Despite the mayor’s efforts to court tourism dollars, it logged only 1.8 million hotel nights. Paris essentially has 20 times as many tourists as Marseille.
Although an increase in tourism might help soothe unemployment and replenish city hall tax revenues, there are advantages to Marseille’s relative isolation. Bruno Le Dantec of the left-wing association CQFD (Ce Qu’il Faut Detruire or What Must Be Destroyed) has pointed out that Marseille is perhaps the last major city in Western Europe whose downtown core remains populaire, that is, home to the working class. One need only stroll through the downtown neighbourhoods of Noailles, La Pleine, Le Panier, or Belsunce to see they are filled with families and vegetable markets and affordable housing. Compare that to neighbourhoods in Paris’s inner arrondisements, which resembles a living museum or an elite shopping emporium rather than a working city.
This truth becomes more poignant when you hear people with regular salaries – teachers, nurses, sales clerks – speak of the horrific possibility of having to relocate to Paris. In the capital, you pay higher rents for smaller apartments, the only nature you see is either manicured and fenced-off or splashed like pornography across bus-side billboards, and people are exhausted by the Métro-boulot-dodo routine – take the Métro to work, do your job, get back home and collapse into bed. Several teachers I know who have yet to compile enough seniority to qualify for posts in Marseille commute to Paris because they so loathe the prospect of living full-time in the capital.
Yet even this is insignificant compared to the true benefits of Marseille being a city that caters to the Marseillais. Because France is essentially a two-tiered society with little upward mobility among the poor immigrant classes, violent riots are a regular occurrence. In the two most recent uprisings, 2005 and 2009, thousands of cars were burned in Paris, Lyon, and Bordeaux. Marseille was relatively unscathed. Why? Because the overwhelming sense among the Marseillais, whatever their station in life, is that this is their city. And why burn your own city?
The best metaphor for the difference between Marseille and Paris came one afternoon while I was visiting the municipal archives. It had been a rough day in Marseille: a garbage strike left piles of rotting trash on corners, the notoriously sporadic public transport made me late for a lunch appointment, and I had nearly been run down by a scooter roaring the wrong way down a one-way street. I groaned about this to the clerk at the archives and was soundly chided. Marseille, she said, is a difficult woman: sometimes capricious, sometimes neglectful, but ultimately you love her all the more passionately for her faults.
And it struck me that this was intrinsically true. Marseille was not just a difficult woman, the city was a real woman, complete with the foibles and idiosyncrasies and flaws of any real person. Meanwhile, the Paris I fell in love with while traipsing about the cafés and galleries was like a movie actress; her beauty had been enhanced for the viewer with flattering lighting and expensive cosmetics and haute-couture wardrobes, and this superficial beauty revealed nothing of her soul. One might even go further: Paris is merely an exquisitely painted whore whose charms are yours so long as you can afford them. The moment you can’t, the moment you try to live on the salary of a fire fighter or a Carrefour cashier, it’s off to the brutal, forsaken suburbs with you. And, trust me, there is no Louvre or Deux Magots or flock of wispy Givenchy models in Clichy-sous-Bois.
Ultimately, Paris is a woman you flirt with, you seduce, and perhaps you fantasize about as the years pass you by; but you marry Marseille and then you thank God every single day for the rest of your life that you found a woman such as she.
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